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RoboWig MIT
Courtesy of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory

This hair-brushing robot could be the future of grooming

Researchers from MIT and Harvard have developed a robot to help those physically unable to brush their hair

From the electronic device that can change your nail colour with a simple tap in Total Recall to the Chanel-logoed headset that gives you perfect make-up in a flash in The Fifth Element, sci-fi movies love predicting the future of beauty gadgets. In the present day, however, progress in cosmetics technology has been a little slower. While attempts at hair-cutting drones have been less than successful (a disaster), researchers from MIT and Harvard are now hoping a robot that brushes hair could prove more fruitful and help innovate the field of personal care.

Last week, MIT unveiled a robotic arm equipped with a sensorised hairbrush that could help care for patients in assistive care settings by automating the grooming process. Developed by scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Soft Math Lab at Harvard University, “RoboWig” has been programmed to brush hair in a way that minimises pain and takes into account the curliness of the hair. 

“By developing a model of tangled fibers, we understand from a model-based perspective how hairs must be entangled: starting from the bottom and slowly working the way up to prevent ‘jamming’ of the fibers,” explains Josie Hughes, the lead author on a paper about RoboWig. “This is something everyone who has brushed hair has learned from experience, but is now something we can demonstrate through a model, and use to inform a robot.”

The arm works by first using a camera to assess and identify the curliness of the hair. Once this is established, a soft-bristled sensorised brush combs and detangles the hair using a closed-loop control system, which takes feedback from an output and automatically performs an action without human intervention. 

So far the team has only tested RoboWig on a variety of wigs of various hair styles and types but they are eventually hoping to graduate to more realistic experiments on humans. Ultimately, the aim is for this technology to be used to alleviate growing demands on health care systems by helping those who can not physically perform the task of brushing hair. 

RoboWig is not the first crafty grooming robot. In 2011, Panasonic developed a robot that could wash, massage, and blow dry hair with the aim of supporting the eldery and people with limited mobility, while reducing the burden of caregivers. In 2019, a team of researchers at the University of Southern California built a robotic arm capable of brushing people’s hair inspired by the experiences of stroke survivors. During demonstrations of the arm, however, the robot sometimes failed to run the comb completely through longer hair before lifting the comb for the next stroke.